Friday, May 26, 2017

How To Get The Most Out Of The Surprise Round (In Pathfinder)

Nine times out of ten, the surprise round is something you want to avoid as a player. Commonly thought of as an ambush, page 178 of the Core Rulebook describes the surprise round as something that happens when some, but not all, of the combatants are aware of one another. Those who are aware get to act, taking either a move or a standard action, and those who are not aware get to stand there, staring gormlessly at nothing. If you're not acting, you're also flat-footed, which is why the surprise round is a field day for enemies with sneak attack.

Easier to hit AND 6d6 bonus damage? Oooh... that's gotta hurt!
Now, it's possible to negate some of the pain of the surprise round by making Perception checks, moving stealthily so your ambushers don't know you're coming, and by getting Uncanny Dodge so you can't be caught flat-footed... but that still puts you on the receiving end of the surprise round when it does happen, which is not where you want to be.

But what if you could take control of it? Even when you weren't the one leading the ambush?

Step #1: Act in The Surprise Round

The first step in this process is to choose a class that gives you the ability to always act in the surprise round, even if you normally wouldn't be able to. This is not a common ability, but there are several, notable archetypes that grant it. The diviner wizard is the most common, and you gain it as your 1st-level school power. However, there's also the sohei monk (which gains this power at 1st-level), the fearsome defender barbarian (which gains it at 5th-level, though they always act last in a surprise round), the grand marshal (which gains it at 2nd-level),  and the thronewarden (who can act in the surprise round as long as they have at least 1 grit point starting at level 2), just to name a few.

This is only the first part of the combination, though.
Whichever option you select, it's important to remember this is a multiclass concept. Because acting in the surprise round is fine and dandy, but you need to be able to do more than just take a standard or a move action to really get the most bang for your buck. That's where step two comes into play.

Step #2: Add Four Levels of Rogue

The next thing you need to do is mix-in some rogue. Not just any rogue, though. The bandit archetype gives you the 4th-level ability Ambush. This states that when you can act in the surprise round you can take a standard, move, and swift action, rather than just the normal standard or move action normal characters get.

So, in other words, you turn the surprise round into a full turn.

That's when the mayhem starts.
Ask yourself how many times you just needed one extra action to stop an ambush before it started. How many times did you have just the right spell to block line of effect for those archers, or just the right scroll in your pack, but you couldn't react quickly enough to get them. Alternatively, how many times have you looked at the rogue talent Surprise Attack and thought it was useless? After all, what's the good in enemies being flat-footed to you during the surprise round if you can never act in it?

Now you know.

Step Three: Putting It All Together

Multiclassing always leaves you with some mechanical weaknesses, but it's important to ask how you plan on using these abilities. For instance, are you going to play an arcane trickster whose uncanny reflexes always seem to let them evade danger? Especially if it means adding 2d6 sneak attack onto any spell with an attack roll in the surprise round? Or would you prefer a sohei bodyguard, who makes sure to engage the enemy before they can get close to his charges? Or a reformed bandit that's now a grand marshal, whose guns always seem to be firing before bushwackers can so much as clear their holsters?

There are all sorts of options you have available, but the goal should always be to make the most of the surprise round. If you do it right, your DM might even re-think using ambushes as a tactic.

That's all for this week's Crunch installment. Short and sweet, but it's a simple trick that doesn't take a huge text block to share. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help me keep my head above water, and keep doing what I'm doing, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. All it takes is $1 a month to buy my everlasting gratitude, and to get yourself some sweet gaming swag.


  1. You can do not necessarily need to multiclass for this to work. Just stick with sohei monk. spend the feats for a fully leveled animal companion. Template the AC into bodyguard archetype. Take the look out feat. Done. Now you both can move and the sohei can make full attack after the move The AC should probably Vital Strike.

    Maybe there is better is better options doing this as a hunter or sacred huntmaster dipping sohei, but I just wanted to show it could be done single classing thanks to look out teamwork feat.

    Congrats you can always make a full action whenever there is a surprise round...

    By RAW (I think) you can always FORCE a surprise round.

    How ? (Careful the cheese is strong in this one, but it's hilarious). Take a feat or a class dip for a familiar. Tape it/bind it to your animal companion. Put blindfolds on the familiar. Voila a surprise check is always forced, because one of the combatants (the familiar) will be unaware when combat starts... Profit with a full action for you and your animal companion... Talk about action economy...

  2. BTW if you building to make a full action on a surprise round as a rogue you have to mention the Underhanded Rogue trick. Straight up max damage with all you sneak attacks without rolling....? If you build for ambushing rogue this is what you want